by Dan Swanson
Tharka the Superwoman had very little experience with pain in her life. She had certainly never awakened in agony before Her left hand felt like it was on fire, and her jaw ached. She would have been writhing in anguish, but she was strapped to a soft surface. And she was screaming, though making little noise, as there was something covering her mouth. She fought both pain and panic, for she was still alive. Her powerful mutant mind fought back; her photographic memory showed her several mental pain control techniques she’d read about but never needed before. She gradually accepted the pain and forced her thinking mind to dissociate from the agony.
Carefully, she used her telekinetic ability to probe her body and realized that the bones in her left hand had been shattered and her jaw had been broken, although the bone in the jaw had already knit. Her hand was healing rapidly; she estimated it would be better in a couple of hours. Being a mutant born a hundred thousand years ahead of her time had its advantages. Meanwhile, she was feeling another sensation she wasn’t used to — she was tired. And she was starving; the urgent repairs her body was performing used a lot of energy.
Her limited telepathic powers told her that the only person nearby was the villain known as Muscleman. She forced her eyes open. She was in a hospital room strapped to a bed. The lower half of her face was covered in some kind of cast, as was her left hand. One of the instruments monitoring her beeped, and Muscleman sitting nearby looked over at her. When he saw her eyes open, he smiled sheepishly. She glared back at him in deadly anger; she wasn’t about to smile at someone who’d helped put her in a hospital.
“It’s good to see you’re awake. The doctors tell me you’re healing amazingly quickly,” he said in perfect Zorish. “Hold on — they said I can remove the cast from your jaw. But don’t bother screaming. You, me, and the doctors are the only ones around, and there’s nothing they can do to help you get free.” He touched a control that caused the cast on her face to split open, and he pulled it away. “They said it had a magnetic clamp in it. You sure got some great medical equipment here on Zor. Say, is there anything I can get for you?”
She thought she might as well eat, if she could. “I need food and water — lots of food!” she said. Leaving, he came back quickly with a pair of trays. He very carefully loosed her right arm and then sat well away from the table, silently watching her eat. After she finished one tray, she decided the silence had continued long enough. His costume was almost identical to Superman’s, so she asked, “Are you from Earth?”
“Sure am! Doctor Computeer brought me and my partner, Captain Challenge, here.”
“Why are you wearing Superman’s costume? He’s the Earth’s greatest hero, and you’re nothing but a thug!” she sneered at him.
“Umm… That’s a long story,” he said uncomfortably. “When I was growing up, Superman was my hero. So when Doctor Computeer told me coming here would give me super-powers, I decided I wanted a costume like his.”
“So you honor your hero by beating up other heroes?” she asked with biting sarcasm dripping venomously from her voice.
“I guess that seems strange,” he agreed, speaking slowly. “Funny, I never before really realized that I’m one of the bad guys.” She was impressed with his diction and grammar in a language not his own. He paused, and his forehead creased in concentration. “Somehow I’ve changed a lot recently, ever since I’ve put on this costume.”
Her interest was piqued, and she sensed that she might benefit from learning more about him. “Why don’t you tell me more about you?” she asked. After a little coaxing, he was willing, almost desperate to talk. She was starting to realize that it had been years since anyone had taken the time to actually listen to this man.
He had been born Fergus O’Dwyer in South Boston. He’d been a large baby, and he’d grown up into a giant of a man with the nickname of Bear — a friendly, shy sort of giant with a fascination and talent for languages. By the time he reached twenty, he could communicate fluently in all the languages found in the various communities in and around Boston — Italian, Chinese, Polish, Wompanoag, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and English — and he’d won a scholarship to study languages at the prestigious Harvard University in nearby Cambridge. But World War II interfered with his life, and he’d joined the United States Army. He’d been the strongman in an elite infantry unit know as Iron Company, where he’d picked up another nickname — Muscleman. Unfortunately, midway through the war, he’d taken some shrapnel in the head, and although he soon recovered physically from his injuries, his mental facilities had been permanently severely impaired, and he received a medical discharge from the army. No longer able to support himself, and barely even able to think for himself, he’d fallen in with bad company and had spent most of the rest of his life since then either in prison or on the run from the law. Recently, his luck seemed to have changed.
It was exercise time in the yard at the Federal Penitentiary of Maryland. Bear O’Dwyer was at the weightlifting station again as usual. A lot of convicts used the weights on a regular basis, but nobody could lift as much as the Bear. There was a commotion in the crowd waiting their turn; someone was pushing through, trying to cut to the head of the waiting line. Usually that wasn’t very smart, since priority in most prison lines was determined by how willing you were to fight for your spot — and how deadly you were. Someone from the back of the line would have to face a lot of fights to get closer to the front. And the loser of this kind of fight usually didn’t survive, or at least spent months in the infirmary afterward.
Bear was warming up on the bench press with about four hundred pounds when he recognized one of the voices. “Hey, it’s Cap!” He threw the barbells from him casually and waded into the crowd. The lucky ones had time to get out of his way; the unlucky ones were knocked flying. He quickly reached a knot of men and started pulling them apart. “Offa ‘im!” the big man shouted. “Dat’s Captain Challenge. Offa ‘im, or I’ll rip yuze ta pieces!” The last two men were knocked flying by their intended victim, a powerfully built bald man with a mustache and goatee. Bear grabbed the man in a bear hug. “Cap! You’re back!”
The bald man winced and pushed free. “It’s nothin’ to be thrilled about, you big jerk! Some of us don’t like living in jail!” The bigger man looked hurt; before he could get mad, Challenge continued. “I guess I wasn’t quite ready to face both Green Lanterns at the same time. (*) They got lucky. But I’ll be ready for them the next time I break out of here, I swear!”
[(*) Editor’s note: For Captain Challenge’s first and only published appearance, see “Thoroughly Modern Mayhem,” Green Lantern volume 2 #61 (June, 1968). He was captured on Earth-One in that story, but he was transferred to serve time on his homeworld of Earth-Two not long afterward.]
“Shoulda took me wit’ya!” Bear groused. “Hey, yuze gotta spot me! I’m up anudda fifty from when yuze busted out,” he said proudly. For anything other than weightlifting, Bear had the attention span of a six-month-old baby.
A couple of nights later, Captain Challenge was jerked away by a strong jolt of electricity. There was something on his bunk with him; it resembled a model airplane. And it was… talking? “Captain Challenge, can you hear me?” it said softly in a woman’s voice.
No stranger to advanced technology, Challenge realized this device included a radio transceiver. “Who the hell are you?”
“You can call me Doctor Computeer,” the plane answered. “I have need of a strong, ambitious man. I have an offer for you.” An offer he couldn’t refuse.
Computer enhancement of the partially fogged film taken by Lois Lane twenty-six years ago revealed that Superman had aided Tharka in performing all of her super-feats on Earth. Somehow, her powers were not effective on Earth. Computeer’s computer simulations showed that the higher gravity and atmospheric conditions on Earth had somehow negated her powers, and she had been equivalent to a normal Earth human. Computeer reasoned that the reverse might also be true. Take a Zorian super-being to Earth, and that super-being becomes normal; take a normal Earth being to Zor, and that being should become super.
She offered Captain Challenge super-powers and a chance to rule as the Prime Minister of Zor if he would help her take over the current government and become Empress of Zor. Tomorrow, during exercise period, she would bomb the prison with knockout gas. He and a trusted associate would be protected from the gas by special pills in a small compartment in the plane. She would land, and they would board the rocket and then escape away to Zor. Once she was the Empress, he would be rewarded richly with the office of Prime Minister.
The next day, Challenge had given Bear a pill. When everyone in the yard fell unconscious, he ordered the larger man to follow him up the ladder and into Computeer’s rocket. What happened next was unexpected, apparently to Doctor Computeer as well as the two Earthmen. They fell unconscious during the take off due to the combination of acceleration and the thin air in the rocket. When they had awakened, Doctor Computeer was fitting them with quickly built helmets that would provide them with a constant flow of pure oxygen. On the trip back to Zor she’d explained her plan — and so far, it had been a success.